15Hanging Coffins & Naked Trackers
The area around the Three Gorges, where we sailed aboard the Snow Mountain, is home to one of China’s minority groups, the Tujia. The ancient Tujia had a famous burial tradition: they wedged coffins of their dead into the narrow vertical fractures in the rock of the gorges. These coffins, which can be seen from the deck of a boat on the river, hang midway down impossibly sheer cliff faces. No one knows how the Tujia managed to get the coffins into the cracks in the rock. Some speculate that temporary scaffolding was built for the purpose. Others think that the coffins were lowered on ropes. According to this theory, Tujia men would have had to rappel down the rock face and guide the suspended coffins into the cracks.
The Tujia are also legendary for their work as trackers. Before the age of steam shipping, trackers were employed to haul freight upriver through the treacherous waters of the gorges. Thick ropes were strung from the cargo laden ships to the shallow water of the shoreline, where the trackers waited. The trackers then pulled the ship through the gorges by brute force. They traditionally worked naked, as the coarse fabric of the day chafed their skin when wet. Tracking was terribly dangerous, physically exhausting work. As technology progressed, the trackers’ services became unnecessary. Instead, they now haul tourists up more tame stretches of river — now fully clothed.